Impressionism (music)

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Poster for Fervaal, an opera by Vincent d'Indy, for the Théâtre de l'Opéra-Comique, Paris (1898)
Impression, soleil levant by Claude Monet
Claude Debussy's “Nuages”, from Trois Nocturnes . Generated digitally.

As music of Impressionism refers to a style of music about 1890 to 1920, from which the pulse imaging main representatives of the French composer Claude Debussy was. Just like impressionism in painting and literature , musical impressionism tries to depict impressions of moments. For this reason, the composers' main focus is not on the form of the music, as was the case, for example, in the Viennese Classic and Romantic periods , but on the sound. The task of this sound image, similar to an image in impressionist painting, is to convey the mood and atmosphere of a moment to the listener, whereby it is about subjective impressions and not about concrete material properties. The formation and processing of these sound images creates a blurred overall picture in which normally no solid forms can be discerned.

Impressionism term

The main impulse for musical impressionism came from painting (see impressionism ). Contrary to the usual work in the closed studio , some French artists, led by Claude Monet , began to paint in the open air (French: plein air ). Careful observation of the light and shadow conditions allowed them to play with these effects; instead of clear contours, the impressionists used subjectively perceived color on the canvas, ultimately the impression (French: l'impression ) of the moment was decisive . Such an attitude was accused in 1887 of Debussy's compositions as “vague impressionism”.


As early as 1882/83 to 1886, Ernest Fanelli (1860–1917) composed an orchestral work called Tableaux Symphoniques d'après le Roman de la Momie , in which oriental and advanced, impressionistic timbres are used. Parts of the work were not premiered until 1912 at the instigation of Gabriel Pierné . As George Antheil reports anecdotally in his memoir published in 1945, referring to Fanelli's widow, the young composers Debussy and Ravel already had insights into Fanelli's manuscripts. In Fanelli's composition, Pierné found indications of the radical innovations which then appeared in Debussy's music, for example.

Debussy had a wide range of influences. Among the classical composers, Peter Tchaikovsky , Mily Balakirev , Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov , Alexander Borodin and Modest Mussorgsky were the best known, especially Mussorgsky's pictures at an exhibition , which were later transcribed by Ravel for the orchestra, already pick up on ideas that later played a role .

The harmonious and formal innovations of Eric Satie , the pioneer of new music and contemporary of Debussy and Ravel , had a further influence on the work of Debussy and Ravel. Another pioneer is Edvard Grieg , especially his string quartet in G minor .


Another important composer of impressionism is Maurice Ravel , who, however, also composed many works that cannot be described as impressionistic. The works of many composers belong to Impressionism or were influenced by it.

Synergy of the arts

Vaslav Nijinsky as a faun

The poets Charles Baudelaire , Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé , who were friends with Debussy, brought him into connection with the symbolism of poetry. Debussy composed his opera “ Pelléas et Mélisande ” based on a libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck . His songs are also characterized by a high concentration on the text content and the atmosphere resulting from it. The music “ Prelude à l'après-midi d'un faune ” was later converted into a ballet .


Impressionist music often chooses a theme (nature, phenomena, etc.) as the subject and intones it. The subject is clearly coded in music.

Although Impressionism and Late Romanticism overlapped in time, Impressionism stood out from the Late Romanticism with a new, characteristic tonal language.

The most salient feature of Impressionist music is the timbre and instrumentation . Layers of musical levels are typical: a profound but not intrusive bass, moving middle voices and a significant motif in the upper parts, which is not subject to the laws of the usual classic-romantic processing ( diminution , splitting, etc.), but rather treated associatively becomes. Maurice Ravel's Boléro is a special case .

These elements make it possible to design changes of mood and space within a work in a subtle and changing manner, without the work itself needing several concluding, self-contained small forms such as songs or duets that are clearly separated from the rest of an opera. Within an act, all transitions run smoothly and without any formal pauses. The ambivalent harmony still causes surprises in listening habits today and can often no longer be determined according to harmonic laws.

Typical forms of Impressionist music are composed opera (in addition to Pelléas et Mélisande by Debussy, Ariane et Barbe-Bleue by Paul Dukas and L'enfant et les sortilèges by Maurice Ravel ) and symphonic poems . Piano works and songs grouped by poet in various collections are also common. Another characteristic is the recourse to pre-classical forms such as toccata , sarabande , minuet and passepied . The point of reference in this case are the harpsichord masters François Couperin (see Ravel's Suite for Piano Le Tombeau de Couperin ) and Jean-Philippe Rameau .

Form of impressionistic works

The composers of musical impressionism consciously tried to distance themselves from the strict rules of form of the previous epochs. In musical impressionism, for example, themes are no longer designed according to the sentence or period model . However, no new rules of this kind for shapes are being developed either. Rather, a work is as it has to be for the representation of the impression. There are certainly motifs and themes , but these are not developed further in a symphonic sense by the composer, but rather create a sound image. They are characterized by the fact that they are often not finished, but rather remember ideas and are interwoven, as when mixing the colors of a painter.

Example of interwoven motifs (from Debussy's La Mer )

In the example on the left, a motif that was previously introduced in the piece appears in the flute for one measure , but before and after completely different motifs prevail. This thrown in motif runs through the entire orchestra .

In contrast to the symphony , the timing of the impressionist music does not usually reflect a chronological sequence of the depicted, but is used to reinforce and complete the impression of the scenery. The music thus describes a state (state).


Example of parallel execution of seventh chords (from Nuages from Debussy's Trois Nocturnes )

The harmony of impressionism is oriented as the music on the exchange of impressions and creating atmosphere. No value is placed on traditional rules from classical and romantic periods, on the contrary, attempts are made to consciously break these rules in order to avoid anything that goes beyond creating a sound atmosphere. An example of this is the median harmony : Instead of relationships between fifths between successive chords , which previously represented the determining relationships between chords, relationships between thirds such as parallel and counter sounds are now used as the dominant relationships between chords. The parallel execution of chords, in thirds , but also in octaves , fifths and fourths is particularly popular . Straight seventh chords or other dissonant chords are often performed in parallel (see the illustration on the right).

The consequence and goal of this is to cancel the lead tone function . Instead, seventh and other dissonant chords are used as a tonal element on an equal footing with other chords. In general, no distinction is made between consonance and dissonance , chords are only differentiated according to their tonal effect. Overall, Impressionist music makes use of a large number of new and exotic chords, which, as equal tone painting elements, enable the detailed creation of special and exotic atmospheres. The chords float freely and are harmonically unbound, sound nuances are of the utmost importance that can imperceptibly change atmospheric moods.

Example of stimulus dissonances and differentiated instrumentation (from Nuages from Debussy's Trois Nocturnes )
Example of bitonality (from Debussy's Preludes )

These are e.g. B. sounds with irritable dissonance (sound chords motivated added tones in Sekundabstand; they are not set to be resolved), nonene and Undezimakkorde and augmented triads and Bordunquinten . Also fourths and whole-tone harmonies are typical. The stimulus dissonances can be seen in the illustration on the left.

In addition, in Impressionism, different keys are often superimposed, the result is bi- or polytonality . In the example on the right for bitonality, the keys in the left and right hand are clearly distinguishable on the basis of the accidentals. Overall, the harmony of Impressionist music represents a "departure from the predominance of harmonic surfaces".


Stable tonal centers are often avoided, as well as closed melodies in a fixed scheme or movement . Instead, the melody is characterized by a flowing, often narrow, wavy or circular, or even pendular movement. In Debussy's “Pelléas” there are also many passages in which passages are sung recitative on one note; here the timbres of the orchestra are of far greater importance than the melody of the singing voice.

Example of a narrow, wavy theme tour (beginning of the nuage from Debussy's Trois Nocturnes )

On the left is an example of a typically Impressionist theme with a narrow theme. The pitch range of which the theme consists is very small, the largest pitch jump is a pure fourth. The topic is also characterized by an undulating guide. The second parts in clarinet and bassoon are almost completely chromatic , which is also often the case with impressionist music; mostly chromatic , pentatonic or full-tone scales provide the basis for the themes. The latter are scales that consist of five or six tones. The decisive property of whole-tone scales and pentatonic scales, as used in Impressionism, is that they have no small seconds and therefore no leading tones . Chromatic scales also have no leading tones because they only consist of small seconds.

Due to the lack of leading tones, chromatic, pentatonic and whole-tone scales appear aimless and exotic (pentatonic scales have a Far Eastern character). In addition, neither major nor minor can be assigned. Whole-tone scales were a special feature of Debussy's music, church scales or church tones were also used instead of fixed keys .

Example of pentatonic scale (from Nuages from Debussy's Trois Nocturnes )

In addition, scales based on church modes are common; they are used as a motif for the past.

Relation to gamelan

Example of the use of gamelan music (from Debussy's La Mer )

The impressionists, regardless of whether they were painters, poets or musicians, began v. a. interested in foreign, non-European arts because of the world exhibition in Paris, and this focus is also reflected in her works. Not least because of the world exhibition, gamelan , a form of music from Bali and Java , became known in Europe at the time of Impressionism . Sounding exotic to Central European ears, it is part of the culture of the respective ethnic groups. The aim of this music is to express the spiritual world of people. Apparently, she particularly impressed Claude Debussy so much that allusions to this music can be found in many of his works. He uses different characteristics, such as the pentatonic scales already explained above, as they appear in the first part of the two-part gamelan pieces, or the sound of carillon.

The pentatonic scale in the example on the left consists of the notes B, A, F, E, and D, which also make up the tone material of the accompanying violins. The harp imitates the glockenspiels of gamelan in that notes are led downwards parallel to fourths and fifths apart. The effect only becomes really clear when you listen to it.

These sound images are often used to describe exotic moments and places.

A fine example of exoticism in Impressionist music is also the piano piece Pagodes from Estampes by Claude Debussy (see illustration “Debussy: Pagodes, from Estampes. ” Below): The title ( Pagodes = pagodas) promises an exotic atmosphere, and Debussy realizes it that with compositional means that are typical of clay painting impressionism. First of all, there are the drone fifths in the bass. The chords have no clear functionality and are sonic, the melody in the upper part is pentatonic and lacks a clear structure, as was customary in the Viennese classical music . In some places parallel fourths or fifths accompany the melody. Occasionally the melody loses its shape due to the frequent alternation between duoles and triplets. The large pitch range on the piano (from double G to d '' '') makes it difficult to hear and recognize structures or clear melodies. The frequent use of the right pedal causes the tones to lose their contours and become blurred. With these means Claude Debussy alludes to Indonesian gamelan music and gives the listener the impression of a pagoda in East Asia.


The rhythm of Impressionist works is also characterized by a veiled, refined aesthetic. The impression of a constantly changing soundscape without abrupt changes is seldom canceled. Often the rhythm is so obscured that a bar notation is completely superfluous, as it can no longer be understood. The metric often confuses rather than creates order, since the music with its free floating, veiled character can hardly be reconciled with a system of order . Often a theme begins with a long note without any rhythmic accompaniment, which sometimes makes it difficult for the listener to classify the time signature and speed.

Example of rhythmically isolated themes (from Nuages ​​from Debussy's Trois Nocturnes )

In the theme from Debussy's Nuages shown on the right , the English horn has the theme, the flutes accompany with a long chord without impulses. It is particularly noticeable that the English horn has a different time signature (4/4) than the rest of the orchestra (6/4), whereby the blurring of the rhythm is already recorded in the notation. Likewise, stressed beats are often given pauses, and an instrument is only used after the next unstressed beat . This creates syncopations , which are also used in the middle of motifs. Another rhythmic stylistic device are triplets , which are often used in parallel to a rhythm that is designed without triplets.

Example of mixing different rhythms (from Debussy's La Mer )

In the example on the left, the mixing of different rhythms can be clearly seen: the flute has a straight eighth note rhythm, while the harp plays quintuplets and the horn plays triplets.


The instrumentation , like everything else, follows the goal of creating timbre and atmosphere. For this purpose, the instrumentation in Impressionist music is very targeted and differentiated. On the one hand, this means that the choice of instruments is very differentiated; exotic instruments are also often used for this purpose, provided that they enable the desired timbre . On the other hand, it means that the orchestras are structured in a more minimalist way, compared to the orchestras of romantic music that have become larger and more pompous over time. The differentiated instrumentation can also be seen in the illustration of stimulus dissonances in the section Harmonics : The indication "à 3" is made for the violins , so 3 violins should play per system , which corresponds to exactly one violin per voice.

Typical impressionist work: Debussy : Pagodes , from Estampes .

Key works (chronological)

  • Debussy: Deux Arabesques for piano (1888–91)
  • Debussy: Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1892–94)
  • Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande , lyrical drama in five acts and twelve images with orchestra based on a text by Maurice Maeterlinck (1893–1902)
  • Dukas: L'Apprenti sorcier ( The Sorcerer's Apprentice ) (1897)
  • Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899; orchestral version 1910)
  • Dukas: Sonata in E flat minor for piano (1900)
  • Ravel: Jeux d'eau for piano (1901)
  • Debussy: Pour le piano (1901-02)
  • Debussy: La Mer (1903-05)
  • Debussy: Images pour orchester (1905-12)
  • Ravel: Miroirs for piano (1904–1905, orchestral version 1906)
  • Ravel: Introduction and Allegro for harp, flute, clarinet, two violins, viola and cello (1905)
  • d'Indy: Jour d'été à la montagne . Symphonic triptych op.61 (1905)
  • Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit for piano (1908)
  • Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé , ballet music (1909–1912)
  • Debussy: Préludes - Livre I (1909-10) and Préludes - Livre II for piano (1910-12)
  • Dukas: La Péri , ballet (1911-12)
  • Ravel: Piano Trio in A minor (1914)
  • Debussy: Études (1915)
  • Ravel: La Valse , choreographic poem for orchestra (1919–1920)
  • Delius: Requiem (1914-16)
  • Ravel: Chansons madécasses , song cycle for soprano, flute, cello and piano based on texts by Evariste-Désiré Parny de Forges (1925–1926)

See also


  • Heinz Tiessen: The new electricity. III. Impressionism in Music. In: Melos. Volume 1, 1920, pp. 78-82 ( Textarchiv - Internet Archive ).
  • Hugo Riemann: Riemann Music Lexicon. B. Schott's Sons, Mainz 1967, pp. 389-390.
  • Hermann Grabner: General music theory. Bärenreiter, Kassel 1974, pp. 141–145.
  • Gerhart von Westerman: Knaur's opera guide. Wiener Verlag, Vienna 1969.
  • Heinrich Lindlar: Meyer's handbook on music. Bibliographical Institute, Mannheim 1966.
  • Kurt Pahlen: Music History of the World. Orell Füssli Verlag, Zurich.
  • Annemarie Schürch: Impressionism in Music. (PDF) In: Intermezzo. Spring 2012.

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Adriano , CD supplement Marco Polo 8.225234, Ernest Fanelli: Symphonic Pictures
  2. George Antheil : Enfant Terrible of Music. Langen Müller, Munich 1960, pp. 140-143.
  3. ^ François Lesure, Roy Howat: Debussy, Claude. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. December 14, 2009 (access only via login).
  4. Poleshook, Oksana. 2011 Russian Musical Influences of The Five on piano and vocal works of Claude Debussy LAP Lambert Publishing, ISBN 978-3-8443-1643-8 .
  5. JAZCLASS: About Erik SATIE - the eccentric Impressionist French composer and musician
  6. Riemann: Riemann Musik Lexikon 1967, pp. 389–390